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High marks On An Important Test

Remember that peace of mind EPM test I got for Rowdy last week? It turned out to be anything but.

Rowdy Got the Highest Score

Monday morning, I got the usual follow-up call from Dr. Randy’s office inquiring how the boys were after their visit. I asked about Rowdy’s test results and when I was told I’d be getting a call later my stomach dropped. Sure enough, Dr. Randy called back with the news I was dreading. Rowdy is positive for EPM (Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis).

Not only were Rowdy’s results positive, but his numbers were off the charts. My vet explained to me that most horses have been exposed to the organism since opossums are so rampant in the Midwest. He says you could test most horses and EPM would be present in their system. A normal number is between 6-8 on an antibody titer test. Rowdy’s number was 64. NEAT.

However, the number is less important than how a horse reacts to the organism in its system. Healthy horses can have high numbers and not have any symptoms.

Not so lucky horses experience the organism attacking their central nervous system, causing wobbly limbs, atrophied muscles, atypical lameness and the inability to swallow. While horses can live with damage from the disease, sometimes euthanasia is the only option. 

Something Just Doesn’t Feel Right

At Rowdy’s adjustment last week, we did the usual EPM tests like pulling a horse’s tail to the side, crossing his feet to see if he could uncross them, and seeing if he could back in a straight line. No problems with any of those were seen. We really did the test after not finding any physical reasons why he can’t canter and why his behavior has changed dramatically. For me, when I hear EPM I think of a horse that is wobbly on its feet with atrophied muscles. Rowdy is neither of those things. In fact, he’s never physically looked better.

While I am relieved to have a reason why Rowdy has been feeling off to me, these aren’t the results I wanted to receive.

But I think back on all of the problems I’ve been having with him and this starts to make sense. He fell with me last year when I simply turned him in a circle. His stride became shortened and ground-stabbing; multiple lameness exams found nothing except swelling in his shoulder. Rowdy became very anxious, spooky and clumsy, which is just not him. I know my horse and I knew something was wrong but couldn’t pinpoint it.

What is Normal When Your Horse is Just Weird?

As for prognosis, we have to wait and see how he responds to the medicine. He’ll be on a 10-day paste followed by a month of powdered meds. We will also put him on a Vitamin-E supplement to promote healthy nerve function. Dr. Randy says that a horse can continue to live a normal life if scar tissue from the inflammation doesn’t build up in the muscles. Horses can even build up an immunity to the organism and fight off any repeat flare ups. I truly hope Rowdy is in the 90% of horses that return to a “normal” life. Not that anyone would call him normal.

The people I’ve told all know a horse who has EPM, maybe even one of their own. Dr. Randy had 5 come back positive this week. While everyone had a different supplement to try or thoughts on recovery, I’m sticking with what my vet says (even while consuming every article known to man about EPM). What I do know is that the next time my dogs bring a baby opossum into my house, it’s not getting any help from me.

I’m heading out to the barn now to give him all the treats.

Megan Smith
Published on 2020-07-15